22 August 2013

Female Role Models XI

Dave Winer is a really smart guy.  The ideas he had decades ago help us share information online today.  If you've ever used an online news feed or a blog or subscribed to a podcast, you've likely benefited from Winer's work. Winer is also an advocate for some great causes in technology and communication - open source programming, innovation in journalism, and free speech.

But he really screwed up when he asked, "Why are there so few women programmers?"

OK, maybe not when he asked.  More like when he answered:
Now, I'm sure there is sexism, probably a lot of sexism. But I also think there's something about programming that makes many women not want to do it. Here's a theory why that might be.
Programming is a very modal activity. To be any good at it you have to focus. And be very patient. I imagine it's a lot like sitting in a blind waiting for a rabbit to show up so you can grab it and bring it home for dinner.
There is specialization in our species. It seems pretty clear that programming as it exists today is a mostly male thing. Which also raises the obvious question that perhaps we can make it so that it can better-use the abilities of the other half of our species?
And then, apparently oblivious to the irony:
I invite comment on this post, but be careful about saying derogatory things about whole genders, which btw, also includes my gender.
See, this is what happens when otherwise decent guys basically talk out of their ass.

OK, let's try the old "replace-a-word" trick to see how bad this is.  Replace "women" with "African-Americans" and "male" with "white."  After all, African-Americans make up a disproportionately small percentage of the field too.  If Winer said he's "sure there is racism, probably a lot of racism," but this is a "modal activity and to be any good at it you have to focus," and "there is specialization in our species" - we all know where Winer would be right now.  Or at least we'd know what creek he'd be up.

I'm also pretty sure coding isn't the only job that requires patience and focus. For example,  Veterinary medicine is majority female and it's trending even more female, given stats for vet school enrollment.

Of course, I might have trouble "focusing" if one of the biggest names in the history of my field suspects there may be something to my biology that keeps me from being any good at it. For that matter, I might have trouble focusing if I had to endure rape threats and death threats (not to mention a pink slip) if I call people out on their penis jokes at professional conferences.  In fact, I might just go find another line of work.

To his credit, Winer updated his post with a strikethrough and acknowledged "this was not a well written post." He later wrote a clarifying post of sorts - not an apology, but an explanation that "I write what occurs to me" along with a shout-out to his mom.

In what I think was an attempt to be helpful, or at least a peace offering, he tweeted out a link to Girls Who Code.  And that's when Winer and I had an exchange:

And that's where we ended.

Winer may not have a lot to say about solutions, but I have some ideas. First, we change the mindset.  If it - ahem - "occurs" to you that the reason women don't do something may be because that something is hard, you probably want to review your thought process a little bit.  For a long time men thought voting was too complicated and profound a task for members of the weaker sex, so prone to flights of fancy or delicate distractions. The same was said about careers in law or medicine. Now apparently it's coding.  Winer is now saying he doesn't care what non-programmers think because programming is so hard and equating his critics with opponents of free speech.  Seriously. Enough already.

Second, confront sexism wherever it exists, especially in the workplace.  Work today is hard enough without people doing everything from suggesting you're not capable to hitting on you to threatening to kill you. When Winer wrote what occurred to him, it's good that people slammed him for it.  (Ironically, I see no examples of someone saying he doesn't have the right to speak, at least not on that thread.)

Third, recognize and celebrate those who bust stereotypes in the workplace (and elsewhere) and serve as role models.  These are the people who show the dudes they can do the work, and give younger people someone to emulate.  People who, as I've said ten times before:
Someone an online mom can show her daughter [or son, a great point my wife made] and say, "See her? See what she's doing? See how she's living in the same world you are, with the same challenges you have, and see how she succeeds? THAT is how you do this. THAT is what I stand for. I want you to be like HER."
People like:

Gina Trapani. She's apparently a friend of Winer's who chalks this whole mess up to a "bad day" that has apparently stretched into a few days now. She founded lifehacker. She's a programmer and and a podcaster and an entrepreneur. And yes, she's smart enough to write code.

Zerlina Maxwell. She's a lawyer, a writer for a bunch of different sites like The Grio, and an advocate for women who have experienced domestic violence.  She's the woman who went on FOX News and said that maybe men should take responsibility for their own actions when it comes to rape - and then got rape threats from men online.  She hasn't backed down - she's experienced domestic violence and she spends her time trying to make it easier for others who have experienced it as well.

Andrea Kuszewski. Not only is she an outstanding curator on Google+, She's an expert in cognitive neuroscience and particularly good at looking at how different types of people think.  I thought that might be especially relevant for this post. She also tells me that the peer-reviewed research that looks at differences in how women and men think suggests women are more patient. Funny how that works.

Darlene Cavalier. Just another one of those perky blonde cheerleaders.  We all know the type, right?  The one with the masters degree from the Ivy League school, the emmy-award winning series, the gig at Discover Magazine, and the business startup?  Dime a dozen.  Darlene has devoted her career to improving science literacy and encouraging young people, particularly young women, to go into STEM careers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You SHOULD have chosen more than one female rolemodels for fields like programming. You didn't. And no, veterinary medicine is nothing like programming.

There are many women in the computational fields that you might want to look up, if you want to make any point, here, other than expanding a specific not-too-terrible sexism into a generalized statement the man never made.

The guy at no point said women weren't smart enough to get academic degrees. He said the act of programming is of a sort, women might not like. He backed it up with bullshit that should not be public opinion.

I completely agree with you on that point. But I also find your post goes far beyond what he was trying to say.